“Southern food is more than fried chicken and biscuits,” said Virginia Willis, James Beard Award-winning chef, cookbook author and Editor-at-Large for Southern Living magazine and author of the popular column “Cooking with Virginia.” Willis is a Georgia native who’s made a career blending her Southern roots and French training.
Though many people associate Southern food with deep fried and butter-laden meals, Willis argues that misperception overlooks the rich cultural history and agricultural nature of the cuisine. She sees the regional fare as a wholesome way to use fresh, local ingredients, like peanuts; and she’s helping others rethink Southern food.
Make it Fresh
“In the South…we're an agricultural-based cuisine,” said Willis. “We have a 12-month growing season. This gives us fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, or something fresh literally 12 months out of the year.”
For Willis, that access to a continuous bounty of seasonal produce meant that meals prepared by her grandmother and mother were usually made with fresh ingredients from their own garden or nearby farms. Their cooking is what inspired her to pursue a career as a chef. It wasn’t until she went to culinary school in France that she began to appreciate the influence of local agriculture on Southern cuisine.
“My entire childhood and young adulthood was spent living in a large agricultural community eating locally and regionally,” said Willis. “When I went to France, I realized that that was their way of life, too.” She said she had a lightbulb moment when she realized the parallels between French cuisine and the cooking that she grew up with. So, when she returned to the U.S., she saw an opportunity to teach others how to prepare similar meals at home by showing them Southern cooking beyond the stereotype.
Willis said that by the middle of the 20th century, the American diet turned from fresh home-cooked meals, to processed and convenience foods with less fresh ingredients. There was also a decrease in the variety of crops being sold in markets, and included in meals. Today, approximately 75% of the world’s food supply comes from only twelve plant and five animal species.
Returning to a consumption pattern that is based on fresh, seasonally available and more locally- sourced ingredients encourages sustainable diversity in agricultural commodities. It also increases diversity in the diet.
“It's not a discovery as much as I think it's a rediscovery,” said Willis. “Clearly I think the American diet in general isn't working. Going back to things that are less processed or less sugar or less fat, and more wholesome is a better way to live.” She says Southern food has a long history of using a variety of fresh, wholesome ingredients in flavorful dishes.
A Fresh Approach to Southern Food With Peanuts
One nutritious food that’s been a sustainable part of Southern crop rotations, and a memorable part of Willis’ childhood is peanuts. They are a regional crop that reflect the deep cultural history of Southern cuisine, and provide a world of culinary opportunities that would appeal to today’s pallet.
“I grew up in Georgia’s peanut country in Macon County and my family canned boiled peanuts every year,” said Willis. “A local farmer would drop a pickup truck load in the driveway and Mama would wash them in the washing machine (without soap) to clean them. We’d put up and can our own boiled peanuts.”
She says demonstrating different culinary uses for fresh ingredients, liked boiled peanuts, provides an opportunity for consumers to rediscover wholesome Southern cooking. At Miller Union in Atlanta, Chef Steven Satterfield does this by offering a perennial autumn salad of boiled peanuts, field peas, and a green peanut oil dressing that showcases crops from the fall harvest.
“What grows together goes together,” said Willis.
Willis recommends other ways to experience Southern cooking with peanuts. Her recipe for peanut-crusted chicken fingers is a no-fry alternative that uses peanuts for a crunchy texture. She also says that Southern food can even appeal to younger generations who crave more global flavors because of the various cultural influences on the regional cuisine. Her recipe for stewed chicken in peanut gravy is a Southern classic that originated in West Africa, and she says it’s got a rich and delicious flavor that’s sure to please people of all ages.
“Mm-hmm. That is some kind of good,” said Willis.
Getting people to eat more wholesome meals may be as simple as reconnecting them with an agricultural-based cuisine that’s been doing it for generations. Using the fresh approach to cooking that she grew up with, Virginia Willis hopes to do that by changing the way people think about Southern food.
Click on these links to get Chef Virginia Willis’ family-friendly recipes for Peanut Crusted Chicken Fingers, and Stewed Chicken in Peanut Gravy.*
*Photos and recipes reprinted with permission from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all by Virginia Willis © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography © 2011 by Helene Dujardin. For more information please visit www.virginiawillis.com
(Header image photo credit: Angie Mosier)